A Pleasure To Burn: HBO's Fahrenheit 451

(Spoilers from here on out)

Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favorite books.

So when I heard HBO was making a movie adaptation, I was excited, and like all book fans, dreading it. The number of movie adaptations I’ve enjoyed as much as the book can be counted on one hand.

Fahrenheit 451 isn’t one of them. It missed the mark; but I can very easily see how it could be perfect. It’s only missing one major ingredient.

And it got a lot of things right. Ray Bradbury wrote 451 on a coin-operated typewriter. (First draft was $9.81) and now we live in a blu-ray and ebook world. The idea of finding and destroying every book in the country is a much more difficult task.

HBO highlights this by making it the central plot point. The Firemen get word that there’s a new way to encode books genetically, and they have to kill it before it’s released into the wild.

Second thing it got right: The book had three different point-counterpoints to show Montag’s journey. The one that HBO got right was the one between Montag and his Captain. Beatty is a believer in what they’re doing. He believes totally, and at the start of the story, so does Montag. That’s his journey, drawing himself in opposition. The journey from friends to enemies is done very well by Micheal B Jordan and Micheal Shannon.

Third thing it got right: In the original novel, there is something very much like a drone, called the Mechanical Hound. It hunts targets, and cannot be escaped. Remember, this was written long before the days of drone strikes, or mass surveillance, or Social Media. HBO upgrades that to give you the sense of always being watched, even in your homes.

That’s the good news. The fatal flaw in HBO’s adaptation? The female characters.

In the book, there are two female leads. Clarisse is one of them. Montag’s wife Mildred is the other.

In the book, Mildred is a prime example of the sort of person this Post-Book world has engineered. Vapid, obsessed with distractions, hates to think seriously on any topic, and our first introduction to her is when she’s overdosed herself. In the book, her suicide attempt is fixed by two technicians who treat her overdose like swapping out a lightbulb. This is a world where people give up constantly, and don’t even remember doing it once they’re hooked up to the machines and sucked dry of the poison they keep taking. In the book, Montag’s wife is a perfect metaphor for the world.

On the other side, we have Clarisse. “Seventeen and Crazy”, as she introduces herself, because she’s alive. She walks at night and smells the flowers, thinks poetically about a world that burns poets. She asks Montag the ultimate question: “Are you happy?” and then she vanishes, eaten by Big Brother before he can give her an answer.

In the new movie, Clarisse is essentially a resistance fighter, walking a knife’s edge between being an ‘illegal’ and being a reformed criminal, trying to be counted as a real person by the The System.

Mildred isn't in the movie at all. And that’s the fatal flaw in HBO’s adaptation. In the book, Mildred demonstrated the problem with the Post-Book society. They supposedly have everything they need to be happy, but instead people are atrophied, hooked on interactive television, constantly being ‘fed’ by the ‘seashells’ that plug commercial jingles into their ear constantly, even as they sleep.

The HBO version of Montag has him dissatisfied with the world, but does a lousy job if explaining why. Everyone seems to have their needs met without books. The point of Fahrenheit 451 is that the world had lost something important, and lost it so completely that they barely knew what it was. The HBO version has people missing something and not noticing at all.

I mentioned before that the book had three ‘Point-Counterpoint’ relationships to tell the story. One was between Montag and Beatty. The second was between Clarisse and Mildred. The third was between Montag and Faber.

In the book, Faber was the voice of what was lost. He remembered a world before the Books were Burned. He was the ‘transition’ phase. His main character feature was fear. He wasn’t brave enough to fight back, wasn’t brave enough to leave the society; but he still longed for everything lost in fire. After two scenes in the book, he is, quite literally, nothing more than a voice in Montag’s ear.

HBO attempted to merge Faber into Clarisse, and make her a romantic interest at the same time.

I understand why they did it. Mildred makes a romance with Clarisse more complicated. Having Clarisse and Montag come together makes for a way to transition Montag from 'good soldier' to 'woke'; and having Clarisse be part of an organized group gets us to the end of the main plot.

But for me, the point of 451 is that something fundamental about humans had been burned away when they torched all the diverse output, and the people who lived in that world were suffering for it… And the modern HBO retelling doesn’t seem to care about what was missing at all.

And that’s the truly, genuinely terrifying part. Because we live in a world that is an inch away from Bradbury’s imagined world. Go outside right now and see how many people have their headphones in while they walk. We seem to have combined Bardbury’s ‘Seashells’ with the ‘interactive TV’ of Mildred’s Parlor Walls.

And as for books, well…

Fahrenheit 451 is a story more relevant than ever.